Saturday, November 1, 2014

Big Bend: The Hunt for the Colima Warbler

The Colima Warbler is a Mexican species, plain and simple. Yet by some quirk of geography, geology, and climate, a few of these drab warblers breed in the United States. Where, you may ask? In the montane oak forests of the Chisos Mountains - an area covering only a few square miles in some of the most rugged terrain in the country, smack in the middle of a seldom-visited national park.   The only place the intrepid birder will find the Colima is by hiking miles up from the Chisos Basin campground. Fortunately, this dry forest harbors more than this one warbler - a fact I discovered almost immediately after we entered the forest around 6:30 AM.
Mexican Jay in the low light, before the sun rose above the mountains. These were the most common bird along the Pinnacles Trail.
Mexican Jays were omnipresent along the trail, and we were never far from their raucous calls. Mexican Jays are, obviously, a Mexican species, only found in the US in Texas and Arizona (notice a theme here?) The sun began to hit the treetops, and other birds started waking up. As we climbed steadily upward, we encountered Black-headed Grosbeaks, Black-chinned Hummingbirds, and Bewick's Wrens.

About halfway up the mountainside, I found the first mixed flock of the day. It was primarily composed of Black-crested Titmice, but after some dedicated pishing I scrounged up my lifer Hutton's Vireo. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet look-alike, the Hutton's was actually one of the birds I most wanted to see out West (I really don't know why - they're not that impressive. I just like them). After about an hour of climbing, the forest had finally transitioned to oak - the preferred habitat of the Colima Warbler.

Not long after my encounter with the Hutton's I heard an unfamiliar song coming from the treetops. I could tell it was a warbler, but that was about it. I brushed it off until it started up again, this time closer. I looked toward the song's source to see a stunning Painted Redstart perched in one of the oaks. This is honestly one of the most beautiful of the 42 warbler species I've seen - the stark contrast between white, black, and crimson is absolutely spectacular.
Painted Redstart
But the Redstart just wouldn't cooperate for a photo. It jumped around in a possessed frenzy, singing its heart out. As it made its way further and further away from me, I initiated a last-ditch effort to pish it in. It didn't work. Dismayed, I turned back to the trail.

But mid-turn, something caught my eye. A gray bird was rustling through the leaves ten or so feet from me. A quick look through my binoculars and I knew - it was a Colima! I forgot all about the redstart to focus on the orange-capped Oreothlypis warbler perched in front of me. Then, just as quietly as it appeared, the bird flew off. I had just seen what are arguably the best warblers of my life, within a matter of seconds.
The Colima Warbler - one of the nation's most sought-after birds, just a few feet from me!
With the weight of the rare warbler lifted off my shoulders, I could focus on my next target - hummingbirds. We rose over the crest of the mountains, where the Pinnacles trail turned into the Boot Canyon Trail. It was sunny and dry on this side, and the forest buzzed with activity.
Boot Canyon - prime hummingbird habitat.
The first hummer I saw along Boot Canyon was a stunning male Rufous Hummingbird. Prior to this, I had only seen female or immature Rufous wintering in North Carolina - so seeing this fiery jewel in perfect light was quite an experience. The RUHU also holds the distinction of being the ABA bird of the year. Next I spotted a tiny female Calliope Hummingbird, along with a few Black-chinneds, the Western counterpart of the Ruby-throated. My mom found an unusual hummingbird perched below us in the ravine, which turned out to be my lifer Blue-throated Hummingbird, one of my main targets along this trail and another southwestern specialty.

We hiked another mile or so into Boot Canyon, marked by amazing scenery and few birds. A heard-only Band-tailed Pigeon, several good looks at Acorn Woodpeckers, and a Cordilleran Flycatcher were the only birds (save for the Mexican Jays calling from everywhere).  It was around noon, and the heat was starting to pick up. With the Colima successfully found, we decided it was time to head back down.

Other than an Olive-sided Flycatcher that made an appearance while eating lunch, the descent from Boot Canyon was relatively uneventful. The further we went down, the hotter it got, and soon we were roasting in the mid-afternoon sun. Upon returning to the car, I gave one last look into that spectacular forest high above us. The Colima Warbler was mine - after one of my favorite all-time hikes.